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John Olsen’s Opera House Mural

Video clip synopsis – John Olsen’s visual diary reveals the inspiration behind the biggest commission of his career, the Sydney Opera House mural.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - art, artists, see all tags


John Olsen’s Opera House Mural

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About the Video Clip


From the series Hidden Treasures – Inside the National Library of Australia
The National Library of Australia is the country’s largest reference library with over nine million items in its collection, including a surprising number of art works. In a new series of Hidden Treasures, Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of the little known and rarely displayed art treasures held by the National Library. From her unique vantage point, Churcher makes intriguing historical connections between paintings and engravings, photography, manuscripts and artefacts, illustrated journals and diaries. These are fascinating tales about the creative process and the works themselves that offer a tantalising insight into Australia’s culture and heritage.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With special thanks to the National Library of Australia.

Background Information


John Olsen’s visual diary documents his progress on the biggest commission of his career, the Sydney Opera House mural. Spanning 10 years from 1972, Olsen’s diary follows the evolution of his famous mural, which was inspired by Kenneth Slessor’s epic poem Five Bells, a tribute to a friend who drowned in Sydney Harbour. Slessor’s own 1937 notebook sits alongside Olsen’s diary, detailing the gradual process of constructing an epic poem. Olsen guides Churcher through the creation of his mural, and the marine world of Sydney Harbour, to reveal another treasure—a hidden corner of the painting rarely seen by the public.

Classroom Activities

  1. Make a list of descriptive words that reflect how you as a class respond to the Olsen mural.
  2. Would you say that the mural tells a story, or is its nature more of an emotional description?
  3. Do you think that understanding the context of the mural is essential to understanding its meaning? Explain your views.
  4. Read Five Bells. You can find a copy of it here. You can read a discussion about the meaning and style of the poem here.
    Identify any particular phrases or lines that you can see reflected in the painting.
  5. Imagine that you have been asked to interpret a favourite book, poem or song into a painting. Outline or describe what you might include in your painting.
  6. Summarise in just one or two sentences why the manuscript and visual diary are ‘treasures’ in our knowledge and understanding of aspects of Australian history.

Further Resources


Go to Screen Australia Digital Learning’s Arts Portal

For more on John Olsen and Five Bells and Salute to Five Bells go to John Olsen: A Wandering Minstrel or The Art Gallery of NSW

Go to the National Library National Treasures website: